February 27 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Our cultural identities: Voting yes, voting no

In the second part of a six-part series, Dr JOSEPH BRADLEY explores the ‘Catholic votes’ during the Scottish independence referendum

The recent Scottish independence referendum said a few things about Catholics former, current and new attachments with regards party politics and the idea of Scotland separating from England. Focusing on a significant section of this community a surprising number, particularly including those from the majority Irish descended part who have traditionally been Labour and class minded voters, translated their lack of affinity for or opposition towards such things as the Union Flag, the Conservative Party, Scottish Loyalism, British Royalty, British Imperial history and British militarism into a yes vote.

Reflecting on how a number of Catholics in Lanarkshire and Glasgow with a way of thinking comprising a broad mix of features broadly and generally described as a mixture of Catholic (practicing and non-practicing), Irish cultural, Irish political and Celtic Football minded, expressed these parts of their identities in the referendum, one interviewee said that his was a yes vote mainly because he ‘couldn’t bear to associate with British things, when there was the chance to disassociate myself from them.’ Also partly revealing the conundrum facing many Catholics for the first time, another similarly minded Yes voter said that, despite this, he would never dream of voting SNP,  believing, ‘that party is full of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish in Scotland sentiment.’  As with many that these voter’s thinking, stated or unstated, their traditional vote for Labour is in the balance.



Critically, for many like these interviewees—and a host of others from a similar ethnic background—a sentiment that the breakup of Scotland’s historic partnership with England might impact on the disintegration of the Greater British Union and hasten the re-unification of the island of Ireland (a sentiment that some Republicans in Ireland also shared) had appeal for many Catholics of Irish descent who thought along such lines. Thus, there is evidence that a number of Catholics that voted for Scottish independence and who are not SNP supporters were partly motivated by Irish ethnic and political reasons.  For these and other sections of Scotland’s population, the no campaign didn’t manage or adequately challenge the uncomplicated dichotomous construction that Labour no campaigners, supporters and voters were ‘unionists,’ and the perception that the Party was on the ‘same side’ as ‘real’ unionists; such as the Tories, middle class Scotland, the British establishment, Unionists in the North of Ireland and Orangemen in Scotland.

Michael, who was a no voter until the eve of the referendum, changed his mind when he saw thousands of members of the Orange Order march for no in Edinburgh prior to the casting of votes. “I’m not going to be on the same side as them,” he said.  For other people these questions became even more basic and clear-cut when they heard large groups of Rangers Football Club supporters of the Union chanting in favour of no while bands of the vociferous amongst sections of the Celtic support chanted yes.  For some their perceptions were confirmed when a few hundred union flag waving loyalist thugs caused havoc and aggressively disrupted a Yes rally in George Square Glasgow the evening following the referendum.

The no campaign never quite got to grips with persuading the small ‘Catholic-Celtic-Irish minded’ section of the population (as well as other segments) of voting in the best interests of Scotland by patriotically voting against Scottish independence without simultaneously denying any traditional ethnic, religious, or political principles, particularly the desire for a re-unified Ireland.  Though small, this group was still important in the west-central belt where a significant number of Catholics voted yes. Thus the almost effortless yes tactic of strategically lumping together and portraying everyone in the no camp as ‘Unionist’ was generally successful.  For many (though not all) Catholics, Unionism is an objectionable ideology historically and traditionally linked with oppressiveness and bigotry. A number of Catholics who might otherwise have voted no because they are highly dubious and distrustful with regards to the prospects for Catholicism and Christianity in an independent Scotland could not deal with being portrayed as Unionist, regardless of how inaccurate, simplistic, superficial or temporary the label was on this occasion.  This theme was re-visited recently by Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy when he said he was not a ‘Unionist’ in any of the traditional senses.  He argued that his politics are drawn from ‘a Labour tradition of trade unionism and socialist solidarity with workers around the UK.’  For Mr Murphy and others like him, the referendum represented a ‘temporary alignment of two different unionist traditions’ in a patriotic agreement which wanted the best for Scotland and Britain. Naturally, Scottish nationalists do not believe or accept this argument.


Fall out

The rise in SNP membership and the 45 per cent yes vote in the referendum have been partly boosted by not only Labour failures, but also by the already noted sense of widespread disenchantment regarding modern politics. Thus, distinct from the critical increase in Scottish national feelings, the rise in the final year of the campaign in the yes vote is ‘partly explained’ as being similar to a protest movement riding on the wave of a radical momentum of change that promises a ‘better’ future.

Of course, all parties promise a ‘better future’ but they differ on how to get there and of course over what ‘better’ actually means.  A problem that Labour in particular has in Scotland (and Britain) with reference to the future is that it is a party that for many voters arguably has not had a very good recent past when in power; Iraq, nuclear weapons, deregulation that significantly contributed to the banking crises and privatisation, and the less well known possible £50 billion that Afghanistan has cost Britain, to say nothing about the immensely more important loss of human life on all sides.  One leading popular journalist and Yes campaigner summed up these perceptions and the difficulty faced by the No crusade during the referendum when he said:  “The No campaign was almost a parody of a complacent, out-of-touch, ancient regime. A dry-as-dust coalition of bankers, Conservatives and right-wing Labour politicians which had about as much colour as an income tax return.”

However, with many local authorities currently slamming the ruling SNP because of limited funds affecting their delivery of services, with a widespread perception of school education—especially with regard to promises over class sizes—as a Scottish Parliament inspired shambles, with the harsh reality of student grants and fees (particularly detrimental with regards the poorer sections of the population) arguably being at odds  with the present positive SNP spin promoted through the media (false according to its opponents), and with the oil industry taking a hammering on the profits front, the Scottish National Party may also be increasingly feeling a not untypical experience proving that it can be easier in opposition as compared to when in power.

The longer the SNP is in Government in Edinburgh, the more it will be exposed to criticism of its policies and practices: especially from the left in Scotland. This also means that it will be increasingly difficult for the SNP not to reveal what its opponents believe is it’s up to now ideologically vague and imprecise political and economic fundamentals, although this might be seen as an accusation that could be thrown at several parties in modern Britain/Scotland. For the SNP this is particularly so with regards using the traditional one dimensional blaming of a too distant and too English-London dominated Westminster, thus defaulting to its core ‘separation from England objective’ as the solution to Scotland’s problems.


Secular agenda

Numerous ‘practicing Catholics’ see the SNP and Green Parties (and the mainstream media) as being significant drivers of policies and ideologies which are fundamentally opposed to and see Catholic-Christian beliefs and morality, and in turn what Catholics see as the social, cultural, spiritual and moral welfare of Scotland.  Similarly, few would argue that Labour, Conservatives or Liberal Democrats can be seen as defending relevant Catholic-Christian beliefs and morality either.  However a significant number of Catholics have questioned the central role of the SNP (other parties have to a greater or lesser extent also been supportive) to the creation of perceived ‘bad’ social, cultural and moral laws.

A focus here particularly being on the recently passed Scottish law permitting ‘marriage’ between two members of the same sex and for this to be constructed as ‘equal’ to the otherwise long established, and for Catholicism, God ordained complementarity of male and female in a prospective child-centred, giving and loving unit. A Catholic perspective sees this kind of law as not promoting what is best for the country and recognises the widespread negative consequences in having a profoundly and irreparably damaging impact upon the sanctity of marriage. Such a perspective respects and dignifies the  complexity and richness of the sexual act within marriage (and implications with regards its graveness, harmfulness and sinfulness out with marriage) and the consequential ideal of family, as understood and promoted via traditional Catholic-Christian thinking. Thus, such change represents a grave danger to the moral and spiritual welfare of the country. For the Catholic Church sin has been accepted, normalised and legitimised through the law (and popular culture) while righteousness and goodness have been negatively branded and categorised as ‘superstitious,’ ‘out of step,’ ‘bigoted’ and ‘homophobic.’


Catholic view

Those taking this Catholic perspective believe that these profound changes will have devastating and destructive effects and will be manifest in significant backward steps, culturally, socially and morally: especially for God’s plan for His creation becoming more human, more holy, thus fulfilling His purpose for His creation. Taking a Catholic outlook prior to the referendum, Professor John Haldane (above) was one of the only serious contributors prior to the referendum who refused to be intimidated by the ‘don’t bring in religion brigade’ and raised a number of questions with regards fears for Catholic schools and the moral and spiritual welfare of people in an independent Scotland.  In this sense, Professor Haldane believes that the principal religious specific and related test for Scotland in terms of human rights, expression, respect and conscience, is with regards ‘Catholicism.’

Out with any religious inspired purpose, less critically damaging, but none the less culturally important as well as revealing with regards ideas about a diverse independent Scotland better accepting, recognising and respecting its large Irish ethnic community (as well as other communities,) another aspect of the recent Catholic-SNP-Independence relationship is notable. For some observers (including for some yes voters), traditional distrust with regards Scottish nationalism on the part of Irish descended Catholics has recently re-surfaced: Football being the symptom providing an avenue for its expression. Some activists believe it is likely that it those from Scottish nationalist political and cultural backgrounds, particularly within the SNP at Holyrood (and elsewhere on the part of enthusiasts in the police and judiciary) that are the primary supporters of the recent 2012 Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act. This legislation has been widely opposed by Scotland’s other political parties (though some questions remain with regards their motivations) and by Celtic football supporters in particular, who see themselves and their Irish identities as the Act’s primary target.  Initial widespread booing towards the SNP in 2011/2012 on the part of sections of the Celtic support demonstrated a belief that this legislation is in the main an attack (and thus for these fans a reflection of similar attacks on the part of others like the SFA and from within the Scottish sports media over many years) on Celtic supporters and an attempt at the eradification of Irishness, particularly political Irishness, in Scottish life/football.  For these fans their Irishness is a manifestation of a multi-cultural ‘democratic’ society that many football supporters and others in Scotland detest and oppose. Despite this, with regards to voting patterns, yet another conundrum was presented with regards voting patterns in the Referendum as it seems to be the case that for a number of these Celtic supporters (a comparatively small number Scotland wide but significant in the Lanarkshire and Glasgow areas), their political Irishness found expression in a yes vote in the Referendum, despite their not being ‘normal’ SNP voters.

However, it might be worth considering that apart from the obvious grand narratives and issues that dominated the overall referendum debate pertaining to the economy, oil, currency and such like, or underlying factors with regards the rise in Scottishness, but also bearing in mind the previous references to same-sex-marriage legislation (and ongoing debates with respect to euthanasia and the like) and so on, one might have found it difficult to detect a serious addressing of ‘other’ issues that reflect deeply upon parts of Scotland’s character, personality and constitution, as well as with respect to a certain kind of vision of Scotland’s moral and spiritual well-being.

These are issues that Scotland lives with on a daily basis and their meaningfulness and relevance for many Catholics and Christians are too deep and fundamental to be determined by simply how mainstream and popular politics are managed at any particular time.


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